The prevalence of arthritis is staggering.  According to the Arthritis Foundation, 54 million adults and 300,000 babies and children have an arthritic condition. Arthritis is the leading cause of disability in the United States and given that nearly two-thirds of working-age adults have the condition, it can be an enormous economic hurdle. As medical cannabis becomes more accessible, using marijuana for arthritis has become an increasingly urgent area of research. For now, patients are moving quicker than researchers—cannabis is frequently used to alleviate the symptoms of arthritis, but evidence conclusively supporting this practice does not yet exist.

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What is Arthritis?

Marijuana for arthritis iStock / gnagel
Although arthritis is a common condition, it is not easy to define. There are over 100 types of arthritic conditions, or conditions that cause disease or pain of the joints. The most well-recognized symptoms of arthritis include pain, stiffness, swelling, and difficulty moving. The severity of these symptoms can range from mild to debilitating. Some patients may experience the same level of severity throughout the duration of their illness, but many other patients must deal with the progressive intensification of symptoms.

The most common forms of arthritis are degenerative and inflammatory. Degenerative arthritis, or osteoarthritis, is the most common arthritic condition. It involves the deterioration of cartilage so that joint rubs against joint. Osteoarthritis may be genetic. Other risk factors include age, injury, and elevated BMI. The second most common form of arthritis is inflammatory. Conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis are autoimmune disorders that cause the body’s immune system to target the joints, leading to rampant and potentially permanently damaging inflammation. These diseases may be triggered by genetic and environmental factors.

Scientific Research Is Promising

The popular notion that cannabis is an effective therapy for the treatment of arthritis is not entirely without basis. Preliminary evidence suggests that cannabis can have beneficial effects. A 2018 Current Opinion in Pharmacology review identified preclinical evidence suggesting that cannabis can treat osteoarthritic pain. The review noted that osteoarthritic pain involves inflammatory, neuropathic, and nociceptive pain and that each of these subtypes of pain is mitigated by the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

The review suggested that the interactions between cannabinoids and the ECS can produce analgesic results that may amplify pain relief for osteoarthritic patients. A 2019 Current Opinion in Rheumatology review of the evidence surrounding cannabinoids in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis also determined that “cannabinoids may be a suitable treatment for RA.”

The study noted evidence pointing to cannabis’ ability to reduce inflammation through the decrease of cytokine production and immune cell activity. In addition to targeting inflammation by disrupting these inflammation producers, the study identified cannabis multimodal approach to pain relief: THC engages the ECS to modulate pain sensation while CBD engages alternate molecular pathways to reduce pain.

The primary limitations of the research are that it does not meet clinical standards and that there is not enough of it. However, existing research points to the potential for cannabis to treat arthritis by blocking inflammation producing agents in the body and minimizing pain sensation through multiple pain signaling channels.

Joint pain, knee-joint, man, background iStock / busracavus

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Why Use Marijuana For Arthritis? Weigh the Risks

Arthritis can be a debilitating disease. It can also be drug-resistant. That combination has led patients to medicate with an array of therapies, including cannabis. Many states that have legalized medical marijuana include arthritis as a qualifying debilitating condition, making it a legal option for most Americans. Existing research cannot confirm cannabis’ efficacy as a treatment for arthritis, but it also cannot refute it.

Both THC and CBD have been identified as analgesics and anti-inflammatories, and each of these cannabinoids expresses these attributes through different molecular pathways. That means that together, THC and CBD have the potential to mitigate both the inflammation caused by arthritis as well as the pain caused by that inflammation by attacking these disordered processes through different channels. In addition to its potential efficacy, cannabis can be a much more affordable treatment option than other pharmaceutical analgesics and anti-inflammatories.

This is especially true in states where patients can grow their own flower. Of course, there are also risks to using cannabis to treat arthritis. For one, there is no research on the long-term effects of cannabis use for the treatment of arthritis. Additionally, THC is a psychoactive chemical. While this attribute offers its own therapeutic profile—mood enhancement, stress relief, amicable feelings, creativity—it comes with temporary cognitive impairment that can also interfere with day to day living. It is also possible to overconsume THC, especially in an industry that is hyper-focused on producing cannabis flower with an especially high THC content and processing concentrates that are almost 100 percent THC.

Additionally, most states do not afford medical marijuana patients with job protection. That means that an employer can require a drug test, and if that test returns a positive THC result, the patient can legally be fired. As with any medication, there are risks. Depending on the severity of your symptoms and on the efficacy of other therapies, cannabis may be an arthritis therapy worth investigating. Talk to your doctor about the potential benefits and risks of consuming cannabis to treat your arthritis.